IT managers see possibilities for increased flexibility but will not be taking risks following OGC verdict that open source is viable alternative to proprietary software.
Public sector bodies are hoping to break software supplier lock-in and gain greater flexibility in their software strategies following a government report into open source software.
Two weeks ago the Office of Government Commerce published a study into open source software, such as the Linux operating system, Apache web server and Sun's Java Desktop System, to assess its role in public sector IT procurement.
The report found open source was a "viable and credible alternative to proprietary software" and could generate significant costs savings in infrastructure and on the desktop. It also said that any open source options should be balanced with current IT investments and possible additional costs around training, skills and interoperability.
Following its publication, the Cabinet Office's E-Government Unit issued a revised policy on software procurement dictating that public bodies must consider open source software alongside proprietary software. It also said they should avoid supplier lock-in and seek interoperability with open source products.
The report and a subsequent policy statement sent out a strong message to public sector IT managers, said Bob Griffith, international secretary of local govern- ment IT managers' organisation Socitm.
Griffith, who played a key role in negotiating a discounted licensing deal between Socitm and Microsoft two years ago, said the report "put a marker in the IT manager's mind". "Open source software is not a panacea but it does give choice and removes lock-in," he said.
Socitm welcomed the OGC's emphasis on a mixed computing environment and the recommendation that public bodies considering outsourcing IT should evaluate suppliers' ability to support open source products.
"There has been a lot of concern about outsourcers having their favourite software suppliers that they install where ever they go," said Griffith.
Jos Creese, head of IT service at Hampshire County Council, said, "Many organisations are already using some open source technology, such as Linux, although typically for the back office.
"Microsoft is well aware of the open source threat and is responding. Licensing costs are only a part of the total cost of ownership of desktop tools. Other costs include training and integration. In considering the costs of ownership of proprietary and open source desktop tools, they are not so different.
"On balance, I expect to see growing use of open source tools for the back office but much slower adoption at the desktop because of risk, costs and product familiarity."
Microsoft, with last week's £330m NHS licensing deal under its belt, remained bullish despite the report. A spokesman said, "We understand that it is the role of government to promote a level playing field and to foster competition in any market. However, having read the report in detail, the findings do not align fully with feedback we regularly receive from our customers in the marketplace who have evaluated Microsoft software against open source software.
"We would encourage interested parties to read the report, its recommendations and conclusions in detail in order to enable them to reach their own informed conclusions."
Peter Ryder, head of ICT services at Preston City Council, said smaller organisations would be reluctant to take the risks that can come with any new software venture.
The aggressive agenda in local government and size and resourcing issues meant Ryder did not expect to be at the cutting edge of open source development.
"We need other councils that are using open source to show the benefits and that it can integrate with existing systems," he said.
Despite these reservations, the OGC's backing of open source software can only strengthen public sector organisations' drive to reduce total cost of ownership - whether through open source or proprietory products.
The government's open source policy
Following the OGC report, the government will:
- Consider open source software alongside proprietary products in IT procurements. Contracts will be awarded on a value for money basis.
- Only use products for interoperability that support open standards and specifications in all future IT developments.
- Seek to avoid lock-in to proprietary IT products and services.
- Consider obtaining full rights to bespoke software code or customisations of commercial off-the-shelf software it procures wherever this achieves best value for money.
- Publicly funded R&D projects which aim to produce software outputs will specify a proposed software exploitation route at the outset. Upon completion of the project, the software will be exploited either commercially, within an academic community, or as open source.
Source: Office of Government Commerce: Open Source Software Trials in Government Final Report
Case study: West Sussex chooses Linux for reliability
West Sussex County Council required an infrastructure for its e-business systems. Having chosen IBM Websphere as the portal software, it considered Sun, Windows and Linux infrastructures on which to run it. The council's existing server infrastructure was based on Sun and it had staff with Sun Solaris skills.
In 2003 Websphere running on Linux was selected in preference to a Sun enterprise server system and Websphere on Windows 2003.
The Linux system was about £480,000 cheaper than the Sun system and similar in price to the Windows system. Linux was chosen because it was thought to be a more reliable and stable platform than Windows. The cost savings were considerable but were mainly due to the cost of Sun hardware, which the OGC said might not count as an open source saving.
Although the saving on software was slight, the Linux systems needed four fewer servers compared to the Windows system. The saving due to this reduction was £34,000.
The transfer of skills from Sun Solaris to Linux was straightforward, the council said. Two staff members completed a two-day training course and passed on their training to others.
Implementation was completed on schedule and under budget, as fewer servers than originally specified were required.
Cost estimates over five years:
Case study: Linux server savings
The Open Source Software Trials in Government Final Report highlighted the case of a government department that found opportunities for savings using Linux servers.
The department had about 5,000 servers split into 2,500 Unix servers running legacy applications, and 2,500 Wintel servers running the Radia application distribution management suite; file and print; system software - DNS, directory services (Active Directory); and commercial off-the-shelf software.
For each five-year refresh cycle these servers each cost £3,000 for hardware and £25,000 for licences and support. It was felt that there were potential savings to be made in licensing and support.
Linux file and print servers were integrated into the network, using Active Directory for authentication. Further tests were planned to determine what proportion of the remaining functionality could be transferred to Linux servers.
The Radia application management software was not available for Linux, and Linux-based commercial alternatives were more costly. Also, many off-the-shelf packages were not available for Linux.
As an indication of the cost of migration within a Microsoft framework, the cost of switching from Windows 95 to Windows 2000 for the department was calculated to be £10m.
It was noted that many users only required e-mail and access to data entry systems, not the Office suite.